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ENO’s cool new Boccanegra fired up by superb music making

9:45, 12th February 2013

Review by Opera Now Editor, Ashutosh Khandekar

Dmitiri Tcherniakov paints a colourless world of fascist, grey-suited thugs in his new production of Simon Boccanegra at English National Opera. The dark intrigues of Genoa’s political underbelly take place in a functional council chamber, flooded with cold, glaring light. There’s nowhere to hide from tyranny in this calculating world, and certainly no place for tenderness. Emotions, boiling and messy, have to remain repressed beneath a thin carapace of masculine self-control.

Tcherniakov’s blunt take on Boccanegra isn’t always coherent, but it largely works. His characters are mostly psychopaths, emotionally stunted and brutalised by their obsession with power. It’s a cool approach to Verdi’s most heartfelt exploration of the father-daughter relationship.

The staging is elevated to a higher plane by some exceptionally fine music making. Conductor Ed Gardner illuminates this subtle, quicksilver score by picking out highly distinctive colours and voices within the orchestra. The playing is quite superb, and the show is worth it for this alone.

There is also strength in the cast. Rena Harms as Amelia is a dreamy teenage goth, struggling to find a sense of identity. Her voice has power and an attractive, edgy darkness that soars over the ensembles. Peter Auty is a touching Adorno (though too cuddly to be a sexy biker-boy). Brindley Sherratt is outstanding as Fiesco – a truly patrician performance. Roland Wood is an excellent Paolo, barely able to suppress his inner turmoil.

Bruno Caproni as Boccanegra doesn’t quite carry the sinister gravitas that this production needs. He just can’t pull off the ‘Marlon Brando’-style rebel of the Prologue, here set in the 1950s. He sings utterly beautifully, however – a glowing, burnished high baritone with not an ounce of strain.

Musically this Boccanegra is a tremendous achievement for ENO. You’ll either love or hate the staging, but it is a thoughtful attempt to make sense of the irrational emotions and psychological conflicts in this complex opera.

ENO’s Simon Boccanegra runs until 11 July.

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